Campaigns season for the safety of cyclists – but will they do any good? Part One

Transport practitioners should be aware that there are a number of current campaigns for the safety of cyclists. Following on from direct action in London, these include probably the highest profile campaign for cyclist safety ever by The Times. But will any of them actually achieve anything? We will examine them in depth, starting with that of “British Cycling”.  “British Cycling” (BC) is the main governing body for cycle racing in Britain. It has no real history of actually supporting the safety of its members – who as club cyclists are the most at risk of death and serious injury with their large mileages, carried out often largely on rural roads with higher motor traffic speeds.

 At this point I confess experience – I briefly held the honour of being the “National Rights Officer” for BC’s precursor, the British Cycling Federation (BCF). This post didn’t last long. The BCF and now BC are basically not geared up for addressing transport policy and safety issues involving cyclists in the way that the CTC has been over the last decade or so, let alone the various urban cyclists’ groups.

Some old letter head...

 The current campaign is based on 800 self-selected BC members giving their views. (An interesting feature of all membership organisations is the way that policy is decided by members opinions being collected in various ways).

 And these views have a lot to do with what is required to reduce danger to cyclists: reducing speeds from 30 to 20 mph in urban areas; trying to get drivers to be aware of the right distance required for safe overtaking; removing lorry drivers “blind spots”; and not having cycle lanes that end suddenly.

 The BC Chief Executive is also correct to echo the idea of Safety in Numbers put forward by the CTC “…evidence suggests that the more people who cycle, the safer it becomes.”. This is a notion based on the adaptive behaviour of road users to perceived hazards, explored by the road safety academic Reuben Smeed decades ago, elaborated here , and here and studiously ignored by the road safety establishment ever since.

Where it gets dubious is when it comes to our old friend “mutual respect”. We are, so we are told, All in This Together. The BC Chief Executive, Ian Drake, says:

It’s essential that we get away from this sense of ‘them and us’ between motorists and cyclists. Most people who ride a bike also drive a car which suggests there should already be some mutual understanding. Now more needs to be done to build on this and create culture in which all road users can better respect each other.

“And it’s important to stress that cyclists have as much of a role to play in this as motorists, by ensuring they adhere to the rules of the road with regards to things like stopping at red traffic lights and signalling correctly.”

Let’s be clear about this: I’m all for courtesy and being polite to one another. It’s nice to be nice. If we all do the Right Thing (whatever that might be) then nobody will be hurt or killed. It will all be just peachy. To mix the fruit metaphors, life on the roads would be a bowl of cherries.

The only problem with basing on a strategy on this “even-stevens” approach is that it is at best rubbish and at worst a recipe for continuing danger wrapped up with victim-blaming. It won’t work.

Why, when I think it’s a good idea to be nice to people, do I say this? It should be obvious, but after 90 years of the “road safety” lobby, we need to explain.

The brutal fact of the matter is that we have a power differential on the road. This involves some road users (basically the motorised ones) having massive potential lethality and some others (generally speaking, those walking and cycling) having a lot less. This is apart from the fact that the latter – referred to as “Vulnerable Road Users” because, like the vast majority of travellers in the world, they happen to be outside cars – are particularly vulnerable to the danger posed by the former.

This absolutely fundamental feature of safety on the road has been systematically glossed over by the “road safety” lobby throughout its existence. We should all just try to be nice to each other. The fact that some types of road user are inevitably going to pose a threat to others, and that these others are going suffer however well they try and behave – whereas the converse is not true – is just left out of the picture.

But it gets worse. Far worse.

For at the same time as it advocates everybody being nice to each other, this same lobby has insisted that motorists are so inherently likely to break the rules and regulations – that they are inherently unwilling to and/or incapable of doing so – that their danger must be accepted and accommodated. It must be colluded and connived with.

Basically this comes down to engineering the vehicle and highway environment to idiot-proof motoring in the full knowledge that doing so will produce the idiots and exacerbate their idiocy. The relatively non-dangerous are urged to obey rules while the far more dangerous to others (let’s call them Dangerous Road Users, or “DRUs”) are actually being accommodated in their rule breaking.

This is then accepted by those claiming to be interested in the safety of their members: note the way in which a cyclist disobeying  traffic signal is put on the same level as far more lethal behaviour by motorists.

Or take the support for BC’s campaign by the representative of an organisation which came into being to pass through legislation (compulsory front seat belt wearing) based on the assumption that motorists are inherently likely to crash their cars. And which has been shown to increase danger to cyclists and pedestrians, actually being associated with more cyclist and pedestrian deaths immediately after it was introduced.

(The following is quoted without comment by the normally sensible BikeBiz site  “The findings were also welcomed by Rob Gifford, Executive Director of the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety, who said: “This is very consistent with what we know about how best to further improve road safety and I think that the overall theme that measures should promote mutual respect and understanding between road users is exactly right.” )

Exploring these background issues may seem irrelevant, but I believe it is absolutely necessary in order to work out what may, or may not, be achieved. Take the “I’m also a motorist” trope: “Most people who ride a bike also drive a car which suggests there should already be some mutual understanding.” This may be true for adult BC members, but not necessarily the rest of humanity, but let’s leave that for the moment – let’s look at people who use different modes of transport.

Motorists who ride bicycles may – and I repeat “may” – be aware of some relevant problems for cyclists, such as overtaking too close, but that doesn’t mean they will become better drivers generally. Most of the problems created by motorists for other road users do not involve general bad intent towards others, and feature a general lack of ability or unwillingness to obey the regulations. Most motorists are pedestrians, but that does not mean they obey the regulations and laws whose infringement threatens pedestrians.  

In fact, it could make them more unlikely to support measures necessary for cyclist safety. Note that the measure to support 20 mph is qualified: “The reduction of urban speed limits from 30mph to 20mph would reduce the severity of injuries sustained in any accidents, although it was acknowledged that drivers might become agitated if they had to drive at that speed.”

So what will happen to this campaign? How exactly will it be pushed forward? I confess to having doubts about the best based of campaigns. And it is crucial that a campaign is based on a real understanding of – and willingness to confront – the power structures that underlie transport policy and safety on the road.

 I leave you with a new website which preaches a benign attitude by cyclists towards motorists – but, as its name implies, doing so from a position where cyclists claim a position of power and entitlement. This kind of claim is not evident in campaigns such as the one by BC.